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Mol Microbiol. 2002 Jul;45(1):1-8.

Bacterial conjugation: a two-step mechanism for DNA transport.

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Dipartmento de Biología Molecular, Unidad Asociada al CIB-CSIC, Universidad de Cantabria, Santander, Spain.


Bacterial conjugation is a promiscuous DNA transport mechanism. Conjugative plasmids transfer themselves between most bacteria, thus being one of the main causal agents of the spread of antibiotic resistance among pathogenic bacteria. Moreover, DNA can be transferred conjugatively into eukaryotic host cells. In this review, we aim to address several basic questions regarding the DNA transfer mechanism. Conjugation can be visualized as a DNA rolling-circle replication (RCR) system linked to a type IV secretion system (T4SS), the latter being macromolecular transporters widely involved in pathogenic mechanisms. The scheme 'replication + secretion' suggests how the mechanism would work on the DNA substrate and at the bacterial membrane. But, how do these two parts come into contact? Furthermore, how is the DNA transported? T4SS are known to be involved in protein secretion in different organisms, but DNA is a very different macromolecule. The so-called coupling proteins could be the answer to both questions by performing a dual role in conjugation: coupling the two main components of the machinery (RCR and T4SS) and actively mediating DNA transport. We postulate that the T4SS is responsible for transport of the pilot protein (the relaxase) to the recipient. The DNA that is covalently linked to it is initially transported in a passive manner, trailing on the relaxase. We speculate that the pilus appendage could work as a needle, thrusting the substrate proteins to cross one or several membrane barriers into the recipient cytoplasm. This is the first step in conjugation. The second step is the active pumping of the DNA to the recipient, using the already available T4SS transport conduit. It is proposed that this second step is catalysed by the coupling proteins. Our 'shoot and pump' model solves the protein-DNA transport paradox of T4SS.

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